‘Secrets of Playboy’ recalls the ugly side of Hefner’s empire of beauty

On A&E series, the company’s models and staffers describe drug use, exploitation of women and the founder’s controlling tactics.

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Holly Madison, seen in 2005 as one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, says on “Secrets of Playboy” that he “controlled every aspect of our lives.”

Holly Madison, seen in 2005 as one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, says on “Secrets of Playboy” that he “controlled every aspect of our lives.”

Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images

“I worked in six clubs. Every club had a scandal. … There’s a was a lot of collateral damage within the Playboy organization. A lot. And the majority of the collateral damage is towards women.” – PJ Masten, who was a “Bunny Mother” for Playboy Clubs from 1972-1982, in “Secrets of Playboy.”

When Hugh Hefner died in 2017 at the age of 91, there was a decidedly mixed reaction to the legacy of the world-famous, Chicago-born founder of Playboy magazine.

The man called Hef was lauded as a social and sexual revolutionary who was an early and constant advocate for civil rights and gay rights and the First Amendment. But he also was lambasted for a half century of objectifying women and exuding his power and control throughout the Playboy empire, where more than a few scandals and tragedies and accusations of horrific misdeeds surfaced over the years.

‘Secrets of Playboy’

Untitled

A 10-part series premiering Monday on A&E and streaming on demand and at aetv.com.

As one interview subject in the new, 10-part A&E series “Secrets of Playboy” says, “He’s like a cipher. You can make him the devil. You can make him one of the most important Americans who ever lived. You can say he celebrated women. You can say he was a terrible sexist. He is whatever you want him to be.”

It’s an understatement to say this exhaustive and, at times, deeply disturbing docuseries lands clearly on the side of “devil,” as we hear one former Playmate or Playboy employee after another recount stories of:

  • Widespread drug use.
  • The manipulation and exploitation of generations of young women who arrived at 18 or 19 and quickly saw their dreams turn to dust.
  • Allegations of brutal crimes committed by some male celebrities and other associates of Hefner as well as Hefner himself.
  • And Hefner fostering a veritable cult-like atmosphere within the walls of the mansion and throughout the Playboy empire.

We also see a disclaimer from time to time reminding us, “This series contains allegations of wrongdoing over decades by Hugh Hefner and others associated with him. The vast majority of allegations have not been the subject of criminal investigation or charges, and they do not constitute proof of guilt.”

But then it’s back to another damning interview with another witness (or alleged victim) that is impossible to shake off.

We hear these women. We feel their trauma and their pain. We admire them for coming forward and sharing their painful experiences — whether we’ve heard these stories before or are hearing them for the first time.

With director Alexandra Dean (“This is Paris,” “Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story”) skillfully weaving together archival footage, TV appearances by Hefner, a few re-creations and present-day interviews with Hefner’s ex-girlfriends, former Playmates and others who were part of the inner circle, “Secrets of Playboy” reminds us of some of the most shocking scandals in Playboy history — like the suicide of Hef’s executive secretary Bobbie Arnstein, who had been convicted on a charge of cocaine possession, and the horrific murder of Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband.

We also hear stunning accusations of violent sexual crimes allegedly committed by a famous TV host, a pro football legend — and Hefner. (Again: No charges were ever filed over any of these, but the accounts are harrowing.)

Sondra Theodore, seen with boyfriend Hugh Hefner in 1977, says during their relationship, “He broke me like you would break a horse.”

Sondra Theodore, seen with boyfriend Hugh Hefner in 1977, says during their relationship, “He broke me like you would break a horse.”

Sun-Times file

Jennifer Saginor, who was the daughter of Hefner’s doctor, lived with her father at the Playboy Mansion from the time she was 11 years old. (It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate environment for a child to grow up in.) She initially found the place magical and thought of Hef as a father figure — until she was older, and her eyes were opened to the orgies, the drug use, the alleged mistreatment of women.

Miki Garcia, a former Playmate who became the director of promotions for Playboy and specialized in damage control, laments, “What was supposed to be a launching pad for these women was really a pit.”

Sondra Theodore, who was Hefner’s girlfriend from 1976 to 1981, says she picked up drugs for Hefner “countless times,” speaks of Hefner’s fascination with Charles Manson and says of their relationship, “He broke me like you would break a horse.”

Holly Madison, who starred on the reality series “The Girls Next Door” as Hefner’s main girlfriend, says of him, “He was portrayed as a kindly grandpa, but that’s not how he is. … Hef controlled every aspect of our lives.”

We also learn about the so-called “Shadow Mansions,” where wealthy and powerful men who knew Hefner and wanted to emulate him would buy large estates nearby and invite prospective Playboy models to live in these homes. Suffice to say many a dream allegedly died hard within the confines of these places.

Here and there, a longtime friend of Hefner appears on camera and defends him as a man of honor, a champion for civil rights, a true visionary.

But when we hear the stories of ex-Playmates such as Dona Spier, Susie Krabacher and Rebekka Armstrong, when longtime employees such as Garcia and “Bunny Mother” PJ Masten recount their experiences, the secrets of Playboy seem ever darker.

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